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In the UK, 40% fewer emergencies of all kinds for the fire service than ten years ago

This morning’s brief strike by the Fire Brigades
Union, like the one last Friday evening, will, I suspect, mostly
serve to remind those who work in the private sector just how well
remunerated many in the public sector still are. The union objects
to the raising of the retirement age from 55 to 60, on a generous
final-salary pension scheme, with good job security. These are
conditions few of those who work for private firms or for
themselves can even dream of.

In my case, as somebody always on the look-out for
under-reported good news stories, it also served to alert me to
just how dramatic the fall in “demand” for firefighters has been.
Intrigued by the strike, I looked up the numbers and found to my amazement that in
2011, compared with just a decade before, firefighters attended 48
per cent fewer fires overall; 39 per cent fewer building fires; 44
per cent fewer minor outdoor fires; 24 per cent fewer road-traffic
collisions; 8 per cent fewer floods — and 40 per cent fewer
incidents overall. The decline has if anything accelerated since

That is to say, during a period when the population and the
number of buildings grew, we needed to call the fire brigade much,
much less. Most important of all, the number of people dying in
fires in the home has fallen by 60 per cent compared with the
1980s. The credit for these benign changes goes at least partly to
technology — fire-retardant materials, self-extinguishing
cigarettes, smoke alarms, sprinklers, alarms on cookers — much of
which was driven by sensible regulation. Fewer open fires and fewer
people smoking, especially indoors, must have helped too. There is
little doubt that rules about such things have saved lives, as even
most libertarians must concede.

But this is not the whole story. I was stunned to find that the
number of deliberate fires has been falling much faster than the number of
accidental fires. The steepest fall has been in car fires, down
from 77,000 in 2001-2 to 17,000 in 2010-11. This echoes the 60 per cent collapse in car thefts in G7
countries since 1995. Deliberate fires in buildings have more than
halved in number; I assume this is also something to do with crime
detection — CCTV, DNA testing and so forth, which make it much less
easy to get away with arson. Only deliberate outdoor fires show
little trend: perhaps because not until he is deep in the woods
does an arsonist feel safe from detection.

Behind the firefighters’ strike, therefore, lies a most unusual
policy dilemma: how to manage declining demand for a free public
service. NHS planners would give their eye teeth for such a
problem, since healthcare demand seems to expand infinitely,
whatever the policy.

Yet the fire union leaders in the current dispute do not seem
especially keen on trumpeting these numbers from the tops of their
ladders as proof of society’s growing success at suppressing fire.
You would think they might, because firefighters themselves have
certainly played a part in prevention by devoting more of their
time to it — teaching people about the risks of chip pans and the
like. (In passing, I wonder how much the emergence of the oven chip
is responsible for fewer fires: chip-pan fires used to cause
one-fifth of all residential fires. Maybe, too, the general health
war on chips has played a part.)

The reason for the reluctance of firefighters to boast about the
success of their efforts at prevention, of course, is that it
implies the need for fewer of them. They fear that fitness tests
will in many cases lead to redundancy before the new retirement
age. The statistics I have quoted come largely from the recent report that recommended that the
Government could make large efficiency savings in the fire and
rescue service.

Sir Ken Knight’s report to the Government’s fire minister,
Brandon Lewis, pointed out that despite deaths from fires having
hit an all-time low and the number of incidents falling rapidly,
“expenditure and firefighter numbers remain broadly the same. This
suggests that there is room for reconfiguration and efficiencies to
better match the service to the current risk and response context.”
Employment in the fire and rescue service has dropped by just 6 per
cent during the time when incidents have decreased by 40 per

It is not just the overall numbers of firefighters that could
come down as fires come down. There are plenty of opportunities for
efficiency savings, as in any public service. Sir Ken observed that
he could not explain the differences in the spending of Britain’s
46 separate fire services. Some areas spent almost twice as much as
others, yet the discrepancy could not be explained by population
density, degree of industrialisation, or level of deprivation. Nor
did greater spending produce a faster fall in the number of fires.
Noting that localism can become “siloism”, Sir Ken concluded drily
that “fire and rescue authorities spend to their budgets, not to
their risk.”

Other countries have experienced similar declines in fires and
deaths from fire. In the United States, fire death rates fell by 21 per cent between
2001 and 2010 but international comparisons are no more clear about
the cause than those between British regions. Sweden and New
Zealand spend less per head than we do on fire services and suffer
more fire deaths; but America and Japan spend more and also suffer
more fire deaths. Singapore stands out: very low spending and very
few fire deaths.

There is also a remarkable variety of ways in which countries
deliver fire services. Some, such as Germany, rely largely on
volunteers. Not many countries use as few volunteer firefighters as
Britain does. It is pretty clear that there are opportunities for
British fire services to use more volunteers and on-call staff, to
share senior managers and to copy best practice from each other.
But the unions are not helpful: Cleveland Fire and Rescue Authority
explored the possibility of an employee-led mutual contracting with
the authority to provide the fire service, but under pressure from
the union, the local authority nixed the proposal as tantamount to
a form of privatisation.

Fire was an abiding terror to our ancestors, consuming not just
many of their lives, but much of their property. Almost all of us
have family stories of devastating fires. Although we will always
need this essential service , thankfully, that experience is
becoming steadily rarer. Sir Ken Knight found it likely that this
decline would continue, remarking: “I wonder if anyone a decade ago
would have predicted the need for fire and rescue services to
attend 40 per cent fewer emergency incidents.” The fire service
will undoubtedly have to shrink.

In the meantime, for two hours this morning, the union that
represents firefighters has merely reminded us that a firefighter
who is called out 40 per cent less than ten years ago will retire
at 60 and has pension rights equivalent to a private pension pot of
half a million pounds, to which he will have contributed half as
much as a private sector worker.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times